Stopping climate meltdown needs the courage that saved the ozone layer  

Posted by Big Gav in

George Monbiot has an article wondering why international treaties to deal with shared risks have become impossible to organise - Stopping climate meltdown needs the courage that saved the ozone layer.

In The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins, a comedy made in 1971, Spike Milligan portrays Sloth as a tramp trying to get through a farm gate. This simple task is rendered almost impossible by the fact that he can’t be bothered to take his hands out of his pockets and open the latch. He tries everything: getting over it, under it, through it, hurling himself at it, risking mortal injury, expending far more energy and effort than the obvious solution would require.

This is how environmental diplomacy works. Governments gather to discuss an urgent problem and propose everything except the obvious solution – legislation. The last thing our self-hating states will contemplate is what they are empowered to do: govern. They will launch endless talks and commissions, devise elaborate market mechanisms, even offer massive subsidies to encourage better behaviour, rather than simply say “we’re stopping this”.

This is what’s happening with climate change caused by humans. The obvious solution, in fact the only real and lasting solution, is to decide that most fossil fuel reserves will be left in the ground, while alternative energy sources are rapidly developed to fill the gap. Everything else is talk. But not only will governments not contemplate this step, they won’t even discuss it. They would rather risk mortal injury than open the gate. ...

The Montreal protocol has famously done more to prevent global warming (which was not its purpose) than the Kyoto protocol, which was designed to prevent it. This is because some of the chemicals the ozone treaty bans are also powerful greenhouse gases.

So what’s the difference? Why is the Montreal protocol effective while the Kyoto protocol and subsequent efforts to prevent climate breakdown are not?

Part of the answer must be that the fossil fuel industry is much bigger than the halogenated hydrocarbon industry, and its lobbying power much greater. Retiring fossil fuel is technically just as feasible as replacing ozone-depleting chemicals, given the wide range of technologies for generating useful energy, but politically much tougher.

But I don’t think that’s the only factor. When the Montreal protocol was negotiated, during the mid-1980s, the notion that governments could intervene in the market was under sustained assault, but not yet conquered. Even Margaret Thatcher, while speaking the language of market fundamentalism, was dirigiste by comparison to her successors: enough at any rate to be a staunch supporter of the Montreal protocol. It is almost impossible to imagine David Cameron championing such a measure. For that matter, given the current state of Congress, it’s more or less impossible to see Barack Obama doing it either.

By the mid-1990s, the doctrine of market fundamentalism – also known as neoliberalism – had almost all governments by the throat. Any politicians who tried to protect the weak from the powerful or the natural world from industrial destruction were punished by the corporate media or the markets.

This extreme political doctrine – that governments must cease to govern – has made direct, uncomplicated action almost unthinkable. Just as the extent of humankind’s greatest crisis – climate breakdown – became clear, governments willing to address it were everywhere being disciplined or purged.

Since then, this doctrine has caused financial crises and economic collapse, the destruction of livelihoods, mountainous debt, insecurity and the devastation of the living planet. It has, as Thomas Piketty demonstrates, replaced enterprise with patrimonial capitalism: neoliberal economies rapidly become dominated by rent and inherited wealth, in which social mobility stalls.

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